Embodiment and Epistemology

Mormonism places unique value on physical embodiment. It is very interesting to ponder the implications of this. One set I’ve been thinking about today is the implications for epistemology, or how it is that we know things.

Moroni tells us that “by the power of the Holy Ghost [we] may know the truth of all things.” Modern prophets have taught that the witness of the Spirit is more powerful than any evidence that comes to us through the physical senses. Certainly, our ears and eyes can be deceived. We might conclude from all this that the only way to know something is by the Spirit (and I have heard some people make a claim like this).

But the necessity of our physical embodiment in the divine plan suggests otherwise to me. It suggests that we can know by virtue of our physical senses, and that this kind of knowledge is essential to our spiritual progression. Otherwise, what is the point of physical embodiment?

In fact, the scriptures suggest that this kind of knowledge was essential for the God of Israel, so much so that he condescended to become embodied like us, “that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people” (Alma 7:12, emphasis added).

It is interesting to note that the same verse and many others use physical terms to describe some aspects of this knowledge: “that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh.”

The practice of fasting and the observance of the Word of Wisdom also point us to knowledge that is available only to embodied beings; indeed, one of the major promises of the Word of Wisdom is “treasures of knowledge.”

As a result, it seems that we cannot and should not claim that reliance on the Spirit alone is sufficient for all essential knowledge. It seems necessary that we claim knowledge by virtue of our physical senses, as well as reason (which, at a minimum, involves the body at the level of the brain).

What say ye? Is it equally important to learn by sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and reason as it is to learn by our spiritual senses? What are the things that we can only learn by virtue of our embodiment?

9 comments for “Embodiment and Epistemology

  1. Gary Cooper
    May 19, 2004 at 11:14 am


    Good post! A very interesting subject. Let me start off by saying that we as a Church generally teach from childhood on that Heavenly Father sent us to mortality to learn 1)pleasure vs. pain; 2)how to exercise faith; 3)obedience. Clearly, there are things we cannot learn, but must learn as part of our progression, if we don’t have a physical, mortal body. (One of the more interesting theories of Cleon Skousen was his idea that Satan communed with Cain primarily to get Cain to teach him how the human body works, so he would know how to tempt men.)

    However, there must be more to it than that, since I can and have learned a great deal with this body of mine, but people who are mentally retarded or otherwise lack the capacity for reason have a body too, but don’t seem to have learned as much as I have. I don’t believe the Holy Ghost is required for all learning, but I am convinced, from the Scriptures and experience, that the *Light of Christ* is required for *any* learning to take place. It appears, IMHO, that the Light of Christ is the mechanism by which learning takes place at all. So, I have to have a physical body to learn certain essential things, but it is the Light of Christ that actually makes that learning happen.

    Now, from this I would gather that those who are mentally incapacitated in mortality will, at death, enter paradise, where the incapacity is removed and now they can make sense of their experiences and learn from them.

    The big question, for me, is this whole issue of learning obedience and faith in mortality. We are clearly taught that Christ was a God *before* coming into mortality. Does this mean mortality then is *not* required to learn faith and obedience? Or is it just that Christ was so much smarter than me that He could become a God in pre-mortality, but we all need mortality because we’re all a little slow? Also, Satan clearly knew enough in pre-mortality to be judged and damned and cast out, and he never had a body, so clearly the body isn’t required to be judged.

    Hmmm… Here’s a thought: Maybe the body isn’t required to learn faith, but to learn it more abundantly; not to learn obedience, but to learn greater obedience. Even more to the point: I think the fundamental reason we have a physical body is to learn to LOVE more perfectly. Even Christ *had* to have a body, in order to fill his bowels with compassion. For some reason, none of us could really love others, and love God, as much in pre-mortality as we are capacitated to do in mortality. And LOVE seems to be at the heart of the Gospel Plan. God is love, and we become more like Him to the degree that we love as He loves.

    I learned to love because my mother loved me, and sacrificed for me, and defended me, and fed me, and washed me, and joyed with me, and cried with me. How could I learn such love, except in mortality? Yes, we had a Heavenly Mother, but as a Goddess, would we have seen here struggle the way mortal mother does with fatigue, hormones, hunger, frusdtration, etc.? I am married, and I am a father, and I have learned so much more about love from my family experiences, things I simply could not have learned except in mortality. So, to me, the single most important thing we learn by virtue of having a body, is how to love, and to love abundantly; and the greater our capacity to reason, coupled with the wisdom of obedience, the greater will be the Light of Christ, and ultimately the Holy Ghost’s influence, to help us to learn and benefit from this knowledge.

  2. D. Fletcher
    May 19, 2004 at 11:44 am

    Wonderful post. I have some tangential ideas…

    A few years ago, I played a concert in the Kirtland Temple, and I toured the town at that time. The building itself is owned and run by the RLDS, but there are other buildings, the School of the Prophets, etc., run by our Church with couple missionaries as tour guides.

    One of the pieces of information being given out by these LDS tour guides is the re-appearance in Kirtland, several times, of God the Father. He appeared in the upstairs room, the School of the Prophets (which they are referring to the First Temple or First Endowment Room) and also later to a group of Saints who were camping and meeting by the river. The Church gives out literature with various witnesses stating these things.

    This Kirtland visit led me to some interesting thoughts along the lines of your post. It seems to me that we are often supposed to pronounce as “true” not things unseen, but things literally seen, if only by others. The First Vision is only the most obvious of these beliefs we must hold in a literal embodied God and Jesus, but also Moroni, Peter, James and John, Elijah, and so on. The Golden Plates had to have had both a literal “embodiment,” since Emma said she had dusted them, but also a spiritual, more ethereal component, since Moroni showed them to the 3 witnesses in the forest (one doesn’t imagine that he went back to the farmhouse to ask Emma if he could borrow them for a moment).

    It strikes me that people are given authority, real power over other people, by having witnessed with their senses, as opposed to their “heart.” Elaine Pagels mentions this in Gnostic Gospels, that the witnessing of the Apostles of the Resurrected Christ gave them the authority to organize the Church (they even fought over who saw Christ first — though I believe the Gospels make clear that it was Mary Magdelene).

    Joseph got some of his authority from his visions, his witness of resurrected beings in the flesh. Our responsibility, it seems, is to pronounce his visions as accurate, even though we might not see these things ourselves.

  3. Frank McIntyre
    May 19, 2004 at 12:20 pm

    I agree that bodies are important, even essential, but a couple of points:

    Christopher, you give us Alma 7:12, but in the intertests of full disclosure one should also point out verse 13, immediately following which says:

    “Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless…”

    The verse goes on to talk about the atonement. Thus it may be that knowledge “in the flesh” was not actually necessary, but good to have as long as Christ had to have a body. I take from 13 that through the Spirit, one can acquire the knowledge gained in the flesh of pain etc. Perhaps this is wrong

    2. The primacy assigned to things seen is perhaps not because of the actual primacy of embodied learning through the senses, but rather because that is the kind of learning we, in our current state, strongly prefer. Thus Christ is merciful to Thomas and gives him physical evidence of his ressurection, but then says in in John 20:29, “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast aseen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

    What say ye?

  4. Mark Butler
    May 19, 2004 at 4:25 pm

    We have a highly regrettable tendency in the Church to take points from superficially contradictory theologies, revealed to peoples of other times and places according to their culture, language, and understanding. We then synthesize with equal parts ignorance and naivete, chill and serve. It it any wonder that orthodox Christianity is rolling on the floor laughing?

    In modern revelation we have the keys to mysteries held secret from the foundations of the world, but which we have corrupted most thoroughly by blithely assuming that any man, exalted or otherwise, can wield absolute power. The reason why the AGT is an official heresy of the Church is that it incorrectly teaches that Adam is in a position superior to that of Abraham. That he presides without common consent, the head of a divinely ordered despotism, rather than the first among equals. More like Louis XIV than Benjamin. All priesthood authority is contingent on honor. God’s power is his honor. Where there is no honor, the priesthood perishes. Vox Elohim Vox Dei

  5. greenfrog
    May 19, 2004 at 4:50 pm

    It seems to me that all of science is derived from “physical learning.” It may also be (though I’m not sure) that all physical learning is (or should be) science.

    But I’m candidly quite fuzzy on what it means to be non-physical. To the extent that I experience something in this life, it seems to me that that something is physical. Go phygure.

  6. Mark Butler
    May 19, 2004 at 5:04 pm

    Apologies for the digression – I should have posted in the “Sons of Michael He Approaches” thread. Mea culpa.

  7. David King Landrith
    May 19, 2004 at 8:28 pm

    I’m not aware that Joseph Smith ever drew the distinctions that we do between spiritual and non-spiritual learning. To the extant that he did, he seems to me to have tended to have favored lumping all knowledge into the physicalist/materialist realm. I’ve often wondered whether he would be sympathetic to the popular notion (often expressed in gospel doctrine class) that knowledge from the Holy Ghost is categorically different to the receiver than other knowledge.

  8. chris goble
    May 19, 2004 at 11:44 pm

    What about if this physical experience is just to give us a different perspective on our ideas? Things that we thought would have been great (not one soul being lost) may not play out the way we would have imagined them. This physical existence could just be a way to “grey” our ideas so to speak. This could be part of a process of making them applicable on a much wider scale. For instance as a child I usually only relate to my immediate family. Figuring social expectations is relatively easy. As I age, my expectations may or may not work with others in society. Having a temper tantrum in a mall may not get strangers to give me an extra bowl of ice cream. While one could endlessly worry about finding an *absolute* set of universal social rules, it really makes more sense just to go and see what does and doesn’t work in a variety of situations. At least that is my way to rationalize why the world needs to be so chaotic.

    As for the spirit’s role in this learning, I wonder if it is there to always show solutions to the yes/no answers we have. It seems like this is a rather pharasitical view of things. If this is the case, why do we feel the spirit when we aren’t making decisions? Is it there just to comfort us into knowing we are at a good level of being? I wonder if the spirit’s influence isn’t there more to help us along in trying to get the big picture. In other words, it tries to make our transition into unfamiliar territory easier. It provides a beacon, as it were, to find out if there is presently any good for us to discover in a given situation, at our given level of understanding. Like the light of Christ, it may be there to quicken us in to figuring out how righteousness fits into the chaos of life. Or I may be way off base with my speculations.

  9. chris goble
    May 19, 2004 at 11:47 pm

    I think I missed the essence of the question in my preaching. If there is interaction between the spirit and the body (a division that I don’t really find very useful), how can learning in one sphere not be transmittable to the other? In my unphilosophical way I tend to take a Piagetean view of learning. Learning can either round out the way we view the world, or cause a new view to be created. In essence, information from any one of our “senses” effects our overall view. How much weight we give to each sense (spiritual, olfactory, etc) is entirely up to our biology, experience, and desire. They all mesh together to make the distinction of spirit learning or physical learning rather meaningless. Of course if the question is what happens if we have a spiritual experience where things only seem to fit together when we are in the spirit, things get more complicated (at least for me). In this case, I would say we just haven’t figured out a way to interpret the information. It’s like the movie or book where you know something more is happening but can’t quite put your finger on it. Once you figure out the frame if reference things make sense because you have somewhere to put it, something to link it to.

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